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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges, collegiate houses, and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. For more about residential colleges and collegiate universities please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

A Toolbox for Every College Office

A residential college is a great household, and if you’re leading a residential college you have to learn to think like a householder. And that often means “do it yourself.”

I recently had a conversation with a colleague working to establish a new residential college, and we were talking about facilities management. Yes, when major repairs or renovations are needed a residential college will almost always have to depend upon university resources. But as in any household, most of the minor day-to-day maintenance problems that arise in a residential college can be taken care of by an ordinary person with a toolbox.

An effective residential college office that doesn’t have a toolbox is hard to imagine. From oiling a squeaky door to opening a stuck window, from tightening a table leg to hanging a plant, a residential college toolbox will be called into service almost every day, all through the year.

What does your toolbox need? The same basic items any household toolbox needs: pliers, a hammer, a set of screwdrivers, an adjustable wrench, an electric drill with an assortment of bits (including masonry bits), a can of oil, a bottle of wood glue—those things will get you started, and you can maintain a running list of further items that would be helpful as problems arise. Buying a complete ready-made toolkit is certainly an easy solution, and many varieties are available both online and off.

A residential college toolbox is more than just a repair kit, however. It’s a tool for teaching and an opportunity for community development, like everything else in a collegiate environment.

One of the most important things a college toolbox does is draw students to the college office. If you play your cards right, what begins as a desire to fix a loose bookshelf can turn into a discussion of libraries, architecture, furniture, or forestry. (“Did you know books were so valuable in the Middle Ages that they were kept chained to their shelves so no one could steal them?”) A student who never comes to the weekly college tea may be someone you can get to know during his regular visits to borrow the set of tiny hex wrenches he needs to assemble yet another piece of his complex custom computer system. (“You know, there was a student from the second floor in here yesterday complaining about how her computer keyboard was falling apart. Do you think you could pay her a visit and see if you can help?” And thus a friendship is born, and a valuable contributing role for a college member is found.)

Another important function of a college toolbox is to allow the master, the dean, and the other senior members to model good community stewardship in the presence of the students. Is one of the chairs in the Junior Common Room squeaking? Fix it during tea, while everyone is watching. Is the lock plate on the front door coming loose? Wait till a class-change time, when lots of people are going in and out, and fix it in plain view. By modeling responsible stewardship of college property we show students how to behave when we are not around, and we invite them to enter into the self-reinforcing system of mutual aid that is residential college life.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021